Beating “The Bind”…

Recognizing and stopping our contribution to the rise of childhood stress, anxiety and depression.

Hello again,

I know it’s been a while.  Although some of my colleagues might dispute this, I’ve never been particularly good at writing simply to fill up space. As I’ve noted previously, this has been a time of reflection… a time to immerse myself in the thinking of others and to see where I might find connections or patterns that might be useful.

As was reflected by my last post, I’ve been touched by the increasingly persuasive data that tell us that our young people are suffering. What struck me about the situation was the description offered by psychologist Dr. David Gleason about our role as educators in the process.  He uses the word “bind” to describe the conflict facing parents and educators… We are relying on a narrative of hard work, good grades, college entrance and completion to insure our kids of a future that we quietly fear may not be as possible for them as it was for us. We know that this increases stress but know no other path.  We fear that if we take another path we might fail and fail them. So, with the help counselors, psychologists and outside resources, we do our best to identify and provide help for those in most obvious need, while at the same time we continue to resist making changes to the systems which are, at least partially, causal in the increases in stress, anxiety, and depression.

I want to call your attention to the work of Will Richardson, Bruce Dixon and their team in not only highlighting this problem but also offering a guide to what can be done and how. My hope is that you will find in this post, and in their work, a growing recognition of our unintentional role in contributing to the dilemma facing our kids, their parents, and their teachers and see the possibilities/steps offered by Bruce and Will as a viable alternative.


For the past few months I’ve been participating in an on-line professional growth group, Change Leaders Community, that is focused on supporting folks who are interesting in, or who working on, bringing new learning opportunities to our students and change to our system of schooling.  The group was begun and is moderated by Will Richardson, Bruce Dixon and their very talented team at Modern Learners.  Bruce and Will bring an incredible depth and range of experiences and have founded the community in recognition of the need for those involved in the change process to have access to others attempting the same work. Participants come from a variety of countries and bring a wealth of experience and experiences to our discussions.

This week’s call was focused on the sharing of a recently published eBook, 7 Strategies to Win the War on Learning, written by Bruce and Will.   This is a very practical work (I believe there is more to come) and, as a concrete sign of their commitment to change, they have generously offered it under a Creative Commons license allowing for the free sharing of the material.

Note: The link provided above will take you to a free download page which also serves as a bit of an introduction to their work.  While there is a fee attached to participating in the Change Leaders Community, this is a “no strings” download.

And so…

The book focuses on what Bruce and Will consider one of the largest areas of need for change… assessment.  There is a growing understanding of the failure of our current system of assessment and large-scale state testing to provide any kind of reliable information about the learning of our students or the effectiveness of our teachers.  Perhaps of even greater importance is the growing recognition of the role that our current assessment systems play in adding to the stress on our students. When we look seriously about how schools contribute to the rising levels of stress, anxiety and depression among youth, our system of assessments ranks as one of the top factors.  It is in recognition of these two issues, that Bruce and Will decided to focus on assessment as a critical aspect of school change.

Another Note: I’ll be looking at the issues of grading and the growing interest in mastery transcripts in my next post. 

There are three pieces of the book that struck me.

The first of these is a superbly organized (and well researched) section about the origins, development, and misuse of testing.  What I found fascinating about these chapters was the recognition of the need to help parents, students, and other educators (who have had some form of testing a part of their schooling for as long as any of us have been alive) understand that their initial distaste for tests was well founded.   Not too many of us sat there breathlessly and excitedly anticipating our next big test! Bruce and Will handle this insightfully and usefully. I consider this the “WHY” of the book.

The second piece that captured my attention was the “WHAT” section… the 7 Strategies that they identified. They entitle these: 7 Strategies to Support Assessment That Supports Learning.

  1. Beliefs must drive assessment.
  2. Challenge assumptions, biases, and orthodoxies that influence assessment practice.
  3. Communication beats compliance.
  4. Explore status-quo busting assessment solutions to provide more authentic and real-world choices.
  5. Let students learn about how they learn.
  6. Measure what matters.
  7. Invest in TRUST.

Moving people way from their long-held beliefs involves a lot of “unlearning”.  This is no less true when we think about assessment.  Note that their focus is not to eliminate assessment but to design, select and utilize assessment practices that support learning.  The strategies they describe and explore represent steps that, while they may differ in sequence and depth from school to school, are critical to the success of any change plan.

The third piece that interested me was the way in which they had formatted each section of the “7 Strategies” descriptions.  Each strategy contains an expansion of key aspects of deep explorations: Why This Matters, From Strategy to Action, Questions to Further the Conversation, and Resources.  For me this was the “HOW” of the book.  It is less a concrete action plan that a guide for engaging stakeholders in the kinds of conversations/explorations that encourage ownership of the conclusions rather than and expectation for compliance with a new orthodoxy.  Having facilitated such change processes in school as a consultant (often with mixed results), I appreciated the guidance they offer.

Your turn

I hope you’ll take the time to read 7 Strategies and share your thoughts with us.

“Be well. Do good work. Keep in touch” –  Garrison Keillor

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